The Twitterization of the Academic Mind (is not a bad thing)

In our contemporary moment, it’s not difficult to find a critique of the rampant use of social media. The argument that Twitter, Facebook, and our other social media networks are destroying the foundations of human interaction (and even democracy itself) is far from a new one. It seems that every day there is another op-ed about the negative effects of social media, or another prominent public figure declaring their decision to abstain from social media. The basic premise is that social media is shortening our attention spans, and diminishing our ability to actually have meaningful conversations.

This argument has recently spread into circles of academia, with declarations that Twitter’s 280-character limitation is ruining us (shared, naturally, via twitter)

In this essay published by The Chronicle of Education, Gordon Fraser argues that academics should avoid using Twitter entirely. Fraser writes that the use of twitter is seriously hurting the credibility of professors, teachers, and researchers everywhere. While he does point out some serious issues with the microblogging platform, such as the potential for trolling, harassment, and other incivility, he follows this train of thought a bit too far. Ultimately, he concludes that Twitter (yes, all of Twitter) is bad and should be avoided at all costs.

This is not the first time that this argument has emerged within circles of higher education, and closely reflects the points that Brian Ott makes in his 2016 article, “The age of Twitter: Donald J. Trump and the politics of debasement.” In it, he argues that Twitter is too simplistic, too impulsive, and too uncivil. These characteristics, for Ott, mean that the platform should be entirely avoided because there is no room for any meaningful conversation to take place. In just 140 characters (or 280 now), there just isn’t enough room to develop a fully-articulated argument. While there certainly is some truth to this argument, it is overly simplistic and represents a shortsighted view of social media and the potential role that it can play for all of us.

These two pieces, as well as the larger argument about Twitter, serve to further the divide between academia and the rest of the world. It reinforces the belief that there is somehow something sacred about the work that those of us in higher education, and perpetuates a “holier than thou” attitude. In fact, this is something that Fraser articulates as a good thing! For him, having a clear distinction between these publics–between academia and the public at large–is important for maintaining the legitimacy of higher education. Even if (and that’s a big if), you’re willing to accept this position, both of these pieces are still quick to leap to conclusions and rely on faulty reasoning to completely write off Twitter as some sort of a deplorable and repulsive online space.

Both Fraser and Ott reference certain aspects of Twitter that are, yes, less than ideal. There are cases of harassment, bullying, and other less-than-ideal interactions. But these are not unique to Twitter, and indeed people in the physical world will face these same issues unfortunately. Similarly, just because these negative interactions do occur on Twitter, it is not necessarily indicative of the platform as a whole. The conflation of the behavior of just a few users to be representative of an entire platform is on very shaky ground. By Ott’s own estimation, around 80% of Twitter content is benign and uninteresting. So why write off the vast majority of the platform’s use for a much smaller minority?

Maybe there is a case to be made that the platform’s moderation policies turn a blind eye to a lot of hostile behaviors. There is certainly a lot of credibility to this argument, and it is one that I find myself supporting. But there is a significant difference between saying that Twitter (the corporation) has poorly defined policies or that Twitter (the platform) has open-ended rules and guidelines, and extending that argument to categorize the entire platform as bad. When discussing social media platforms, language is incredibly important. In the context of platforms, there can be a great deal of slippage between terms for the website, its mobile app, the corporate owners, and its users. Specificity is important when making any claims about the effects of social media, and unfortunately these arguments about why Twitter is running academic are lacking. This might be a good place to note that neither Fraser nor Ott are regular Twitter users, but nevertheless make broad claims about why everyone else (who very well may find benefits from the platform) are wrong and shortsighted.

Image result for twitter moderation
For more on platform moderation, Data & Society’s Robyn Caplan wrote a great report that summarizes many of the popular approaches to managing an online platform.

Much of the argument against academics using Twitter stems from the notion that the platform does not have adequate means for meaningful conversation. However, the suggestion of Twitter’s simplicity and impulsivity, though true to a small extent, cannot be taken to such extreme ends. For instance, maybe the character limitation does force an argument to be cut down. But also, brevity can be a useful tool to cause an argument to be refined, distilled, and made even more convincing. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who dismissed Hemmingway’s “Baby Shoes” short story just because it’s under 140 characters.

Similarly, it is the case that much of Twitter’s content is posted impulsively. And perhaps there is something to the argument that the interface’s friendly question “What’s Happening?” encourages users to post impulsively, without taking the time to fully articulate their thoughts and refine arguments. But I could also just as easily make the argument that because Twitter’s mobile app includes a Drafts feature (and the ability to save multiple drafts, something missing from other social media), it actually discourages impulsivity. In either case, to extend the impulsivity and simplicity into broad arguments about the platform’s inutility for higher education is shaky at best.

Fundamentally, the argument that Twitter is bad for academia is predicated on the assumption that most of us are using Twitter to make full scholarly claims–similar to what one might write for a formal journal publication. And sure, trying to condense a 10,000 word argument into a few snippets of 280 characters is probably an exercise in futility. But this argument entirely overlooks the more important facets of Twitter use, such as the platforms ability to facilitate networking and community building. Much like the conversations that scholars might have in the elevator or hotel lobby at a conference, Twitter is an online space where individual can interact and meet with people that they might not otherwise be able to.

This community-building afforded by Twitter is absolutely critical! There’s a reason that people continually refer to the adage that “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” And for members of minority identities and communities, the community-building opportunities online may greatly outweigh those that are available in the physical world. If you’re in a department, university, or other environment that does not have the professional network and support communities, Twitter is often an incredibly important tool to stake out a space in the otherwise white cis hetero male dominated space that is higher education.

Ultimately, there are certainly many valid critiques of Twitter, and of social media broadly. But to jump to a broad conclusion and writing off the entire platform is a poorly formed criticism. When we critique a new media technology, we should be as precise as possible. Rarely is the entire platform the core of the problem, but rather its corporate owners, its specific rules, or just a few users. But to conflate an issue that exists in one small facet as indicative of the entire platform entirely overlooks and diminishes the very real benefits that the platform can have for certain people.

Maybe Twitter is destabilizing the previous norms of higher education. But maybe that’s actually a good thing.

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